When I lived on a biodynamic farm outside of Louisville, Kentucky, I witnessed crazy things happening in the compost pile.

Herbal potpourri (called “preps” or preparations) were added to the huge compost heap. Cow horns filled with manure were buried in the pile. Planning on the farm happened according to the cycles of the moon and sun. Even carcasses of dead animals were incorporated in the mountain of compost

Having grown up in a household that composted vegetable scraps in a backyard simple bin, I was fascinated. How many ways are there to make compost? Turns out: a lot. For the average household composter, it can be hard to know where to start.

What method of composting is best for you? First, let’s talk about what compost is and what it requires.

Overview of Composting

Technically, composting is the process of aerobically decomposing organic materials. That means that oxygen is required for “air-loving” microbes to do their job of digesting materials into fine, nutrient-rich pieces. Microbes also need moisture to do their work, which they’ll get from the organic scraps.

Composting microbes create heat as they work, hence the name “hot” composting. The heat generated is vital: it kills weeds, unwanted seeds, and other microbial life undesirable to your garden. In return, you get a fluffy, odorless amendment to help grow your garden.

Organic material plus naturally occurring beneficial microbes plus oxygen and moisture. Easy!

But there’s one more thing that most composting methods need: mixing or “turning.” While modern compost gadgets continue to develop easier, less cumbersome ways to turn in-process compost, the tried-and-true way is to simply mix it up with a shovel. As you can imagine, the container you choose for your compost has a lot to do with how easy you can turn and harvest your stash.

“Cold” composting can be done, but takes a heck of a lot more time. Cold composting can initially be set up similarly to certain hot composting methods, then left to digest itself without turning. Before you choose a cold composting method, consider that it can take months to years to produce healthy compost, and it won’t kill weed seeds or other yucky microbes.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Compost Method

Before you choose your method, consider a few factors:

  • What kind of outdoor space do you have?
  • Is it in sun or shade?
  • How much time, effort, and money do you want to spend for set-up?
  • How much labor are you willing to put in to maintain and harvest your compost?
  • How much green waste do you need to dispose of?

All of the household methods discussed below can accommodate the average composter’s ingredients: garden trimmings, weeds, dry leaves, and kitchen waste like vegetable excess, coffee grounds, fruit cores and rinds, and crushed eggshells.

Note that, unlike our giant heap in Kentucky, you do not want to add animals, bones, meat, or dairy to your household compost. That takes considerable expertise and attention. If you’re hoping to compost animal products, you’ll need to be much more careful and precise about your methods.

Reflecting on your needs and resources, let’s dive in. Here are the 10 most common and residential-friendly ways to transform your household food waste into rich nutrients for your garden…or simply dispose of everyday scraps in the most eco-friendly way there is.

Easiest Ways to Compost

1. Commercial or Community Composting

COST: high

SET-UP: very easy

MAINTENANCE: very easy

THINGS TO REMEMBER: not available everywhere

Are you space and time limited? Find a company that provides composting service in your neighborhood. Some cities and municipalities already tried large-scale curbside composting programs (hello, San Francisco!).

This a relatively new industry, so be prepared to deal with some bumps in the road. Sometimes a private company or non-profit will deliver finished compost back to you, but most of the time, it’s simply a pick-up service. These companies usually give or sell compost to local farms, reincarnating your kitchen waste into yummy farmer’s market treats for you to buy locally.

2. Compost Tumbler

COST: moderate

SET-UP: easy

MAINTENANCE: very easy

THINGS TO REMEMBER: some tumblers require set-up or building at home

A store-bought container with a handle for turning is many folks’ first choice for fool-proof composting. It takes very minimal effort and doesn’t require any expert knowledge about composting chemistry. All it takes is enough outdoor space—and not too much, at that. These sealed containers are pest-proof and have a door for easy harvesting by pouring finished compost into a wheelbarrow or bucket.

The market is awash with tumblers of all styles, but it can be useful to buy one from your local gardening or hardware store, because the employees there will be able to help with any questions you have. Tumblers do often require you to build them yourself, though some come fully intact.

This is an exceptional option for older gardeners with less mobility, anyone with back pain, or folks with very limited time (or just a limited desire to get their dirt on their hands). There is practically no way to mess this up—but don’t quote me on that.

3. Plastic Compost Bin

COST: moderate

SET-UP: easy


THINGS TO REMEMBER: requires manual turning

A simple plastic bin is another store-bought tool that can take you a long way without too much labor. The difference here is that you’ll need to do the turning yourself in order to disperse heat, moisture, and microbes. Be sure to place your compost bin in a spot that gets a good amount of indirect sun, so the bin gets warm during the day, helping digestion happen.

Like a tumbler, a door on the bin makes harvesting simple, although you’ll need to shovel compost out of the bin. Since it doesn’t have access to the ground, you’ll need to innoculate the bin with some soil from the ground.

Intermediate-Level Composting Options

4. Vermicomposting (Worm Bins)

best composting methods worms

COST: low

SET-UP: moderate


THINGS TO REMEMBER: must keep worms alive; can attract flies if not done properly

Yes, it sounds a little icky. But it’s one of the most reasonable ways to compost for a lot of people and it’s fast.

Space-limited? Turn to worms. My brother (somewhat notoriously, in our family) built a worm composter in the corner of his one-bedroom Pittsburgh apartment out of two run-of-the-mill plastic buckets and a worm starter kit from a gardening store. Even his two rambunctious indoor cats co-existed with the worm composter!

The huge plus-side of a worm composter, especially if you live in a place with real winters, is that you can keep compost going inside. Like all other forms of hot composting, it doesn’t stink (if you’re doing it right).

But just like you and your own rambunctious cats, worms need to be kept warm or they’ll stop eating your scraps—and your waste will rot. You can employ several clever methods of keeping them warm and hungry during winter months, outlined in this

For the record, we do not recommend this style for homes with small children or mischievous dogs. Unless you don’t mind your kid playing with worms all over your kitchen floor.

5. Pile/Heap Composting

best compost methods

COST: low

SET-UP: moderate


THINGS TO REMEMBER: requires manual turning; may attract pests

At first the heap seems too good to be true. Just throw all my kitchen scraps in a pile and let it turn to black gold?

Well, yes and no.

Let’s state right off the bat that heap composting can be a messy process that attracts pests of all sorts. It can take a longer time to get the lovely black gold you crave. You’re going to want a lot of room for this one. If you have a dog who roams the backyard looking for treats, you might want to forget about the pile (or build a fence around it).

But if you do have the right kind of space and lifestyle, this method is exceptional. Heap composting can function as either hot or cold method, depending on how actively you want to attend to your compost. For a hot heap, invest in a long-stemmed thermometer so you can monitor the pile’s digestion and turn it with some precision. Remember that cold composting your heap can take six months to a year to produce finished compost – and takes a more precise “design” to ensure compost doesn’t rot or grow bad microbes.

6. Pit/Trench Composting

COST: low

SET-UP: hard


THINGS TO REMEMBER: requires manual turning; may attract pests

Exactly what it sounds like, trench or pit composting is simply a hole in the earth to be filled up with organic matter. A big bonus is that this pest-resistant version of the heap (covering the trench with dry leaves or even chicken wire) puts finished compost right where you’ll grow—no need to harvest. Covered with at least six inches of soil, good bacteria and worms will start breaking down your scraps without much effort from you.

The trench method requires quite a bit of space in your yard or garden, and getting started by digging big holes isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But if you’re not averse to a couple hours of digging, the payoff is grand.

7. Wire Bin Composting

COST: low

SET-UP: moderate

MAINTENANCE: moderate-to-hard

THINGS TO REMEMBER: requires manual turning; may attract pests

The wire bin is relatively easy to set up, but takes a moderate amount of yard space and can get tricky when it’s time to turn and harvest. Just like tumblers, bins, and chicken coops, there are plenty of options to purchase ready-to-use wire bins. You can also build this simple structure on your own with a few wooden stakes and some chicken wire.

This container may be familiar to many people who have lots of leaves to rake up in the Fall—and, in fact, you can start your wire bin composter with a base and cover of dry leaves!

One downfall of wire bins is that they’re hard to secure from pests. Also like the heap, you can certainly turn this into a cold composting situation if you’d rather leave you wire bin alone and digest slow and steady.

8. Green Cone/Solar Cone Composting

COST: high

SET-UP: moderate-to-hard

MAINTENANCE: very easy

THINGS TO REMEMBER: must be placed in a sunny spot; will not produce harvestable compost

Like a combination between wire bins and pit compost, green cones are made of a mesh basket that is partially buried in the ground, covered by a cone-shaped, above-ground top. These contraptions can be pricey, but once you install one correctly, you’ll barely need to touch it for months or even years. (Really!)

Maintenance is incredibly easy: simply drop food scraps inside the cone. No need to turn! The solar cone on top traps the sun’s heat and “cooks” your compost. The buried basket allows microbes and worms to wriggle through your scraps to digest it, and the subsequent nutrient-rich waste diffuses out into your surrounding garden.

Green cones will produce your compost directly into the ground, so place your cones exactly where you want that nutrient-rich soil. The simplicity of not having to move compost from a bin to your garden may be worth the labor and cost in set-up. This is a fantastic shovel-free option for mobility-limited gardeners—and green cones make great gifts.

Advanced Composting Methods

9. Chickens

chicken composting

COST: high

SET-UP: hard


THINGS TO REMEMBER: chickens need love and care!

Not for those with commitment-phobia, backyard chickens are one of the most tried-and-true, natural ways to turn waste into nutrients.

Obviously, this isn’t an option for everyone. Many people are unable to choose this method simply because they don’t have enough outdoor space, their neighborhood or city zoning doesn’t allow for backyard chickens, or the time (and emotional) commitment is too hefty.

But if you can make it happen, chicken brings multiple collateral benefits—including fresh eggs! And, if you’re a bird lover like me, you’ll also be overjoyed with your adorable backyard companions.

Check with your local city to see if chickens are permitted in your residential yard before you commit, and consider that chickens can also fall prey to raccoons, coyotes, and other night predators.

While there are no shortage of stylish chicken palaces on the market, it isn’t necessary to spend hundreds of dollars on a home for your feathered composters. A small chicken house can be built for minimal cost with supplies from the hardware store, or even by calling up a local lumber company, contractor, or furniture maker to ask about wood scrap for the coop’s structure. There is much more to be said and studied if you’re planning to install chickens as your compost method, so be sure to do your research.

And, while it goes without saying, remember that these clucky companions can get noisy.

10. Pallet Bin Composting

pallet composting method

COST: low

SET-UP: hard


THINGS TO REMEMBER: requires moderate manual labor; may attract pests

Possibly the most labor-intensive method up-front, but also one of the easiest to maintain once you get it going. Pallet structure are also one of the most productive methods for excellent, rich, beautifully fermented material at home.

This three-bin system works wonderfully if you have enough outdoor space and a good volume of green waste. You’ll find this method a lot at community gardens and urban farms. You can typically find businesses aching to get rid of pallets anywhere—ask at furniture stores, big warehouse stores, garden stores, shipping companies, and your local CraigsList or other “free stuff” boards.